In the world of children’s books, Allan Ahlberg qualifies as a national treasure. Along with his wife Janet, he has created some of the most exquisite children’s books of the past 40 years, books that have been shared across generations as parents put a stamp of their own happy memories onto the memories they are creating with their own children. Books that inform through fun, that speak to the tiniest child as an equal and encourage them to question and explore the world around them without patronising them. I remember endless happy afternoons playing hide and seek with the pages ofEach Peach Pear Plum, and introducing a basic concept of history to my daughter with a sharing of Peepo. Woof will always remain one of my own favourites and Please, Mrs Butler remains a favourite with children wherever I go.
In my world Allan Ahlberg has always been a very important person indeed. And, perhaps unfairly we expect more of the people we don’t know but conceive as being important. We live in a world where the cult of celebrity throws endless numbers of ‘role models’ towards our children, only for these people to be shown to be unsuitable. I’m not sure it is fair to expect a stranger to be a role model for your child or that we actually trust that they are. But we do expect people whom we put in a position of trust to have principles and ideals, just as we do. Through his books Allan Ahlberg is an integral part of so many childhoods, and through his characters he does occupy a position of trust for many families across the nation.
I was thrilled this morning to hear that Allan Ahlberg had been offered the inaugural Booktrust Lifetime Achievement award. And although he is a thoroughly deserving winner, I was even more thrilled to find that he had refused it, and gone public on his reasoning why.
On first hearing that Booktrust had a sponsorship arrangement with Amazon, I felt queasy. We live in a world where fast food chains are allowed to rectify the potential damage they do to the lifestyle choices of our children by plastering their names over sporting events and giveaway books, where product placement has become part of the televisual experience, and where we are told that in certain sectors we have to pay the ‘best people’ a fortune to turn up, even if they do a poor job. We are led to believe that it is okay for us not like it, but that’s the way it is nonetheless. We teach our children by default, that in the modern world it is acceptable to compromise your values for fame, fortune and a vacuous existence.
Allan Ahlberg’s refusal of this award, on the grounds of Amazon’s sponsorship, is a vote of confidence that the people who we trust to help us as we guide our children in their formative years are honest, principled individuals that care about the world they are encouraging children to explore. He is only one individual, and stands only for what he believes in, but it gives me hope. His is one voice, but it is a voice on a public stage. Unfortunately, I do not think that his move will push back the tide of major corporations using the good works of others to wipe clean their own immoral (although not illegal) codes of business . However, it gave the system a jolt and with that hopefully time to think. Ahlberg had the strength to say that linking his work by association to the sponsor was unacceptable. Let’s use his example to all think about what we find acceptable, and stop being bullied into accepting it is okay to have our lives sold out to the highest bidder.